Impostor Syndrome is a short, choice-based game about a woman presenting at a tech conference. Playing time is probably around ten minutes (I lost track, as I went through it a couple of times). Review after the jump, any spoilers after a longer spoiler space.
The blurb for this piece had me a little nervous that it was going to be essentially a pure rant. It isn’t: there’s a story here, with characters and backstory, told confidently and with a good sense of pace. The story is set not exactly in the present reality, but in one a few years forward from now; the author has taken care to do some world-building around the technology involved and the ways it might affect people’s behavior. The characters are believable, and their problems are plausible problems.
It’s not a story in which the player is allowed very much control over what happens, but the interactivity drives home some points about powerlessness, and lets the reader explore bits of the backstory at her own pace: this works well. I had the sense of an author both familiar and comfortable with writing for interactive media.
I had more trouble, however, with the ending.
What I had trouble with was the page where you can decide to say something, only to be confronted with link wall in which most of the words lead to you being too nervous or hopeless to say anything, and going home in despair.
Originally I had a bit here about how I disagree with the “you can’t do or say anything about how you’ve been treated” message of this piece, because I hadn’t found the two words in the link wall that do lead to a slightly different outcome. Then I read some reviews, especially this one, which has explicit spoilers in the comments. From these I discovered that you can do something, if you pick out one of the two keywords from the passage that go somewhere.
This kind of Twine puzzle — “here are a large number of links, only a few of which go somewhere special” — is really, really easy for players to miss: not only to get wrong, but to miss noticing that the puzzle exists at all. I first encountered the link-wall-puzzle effect in howling dogs, where I found it effective, and I think Porpentine did invent it there. But in that case I think it worked because the framing material for the story explicitly stated that there would be a second ending, and because the text itself heavily hinted that something was going on at that screen that wasn’t what you might expect.
In the case of Impostor Syndrome, I replayed the game four or five times to investigate this link wall, but in the process did not hit the right words, and ultimately gave up, especially since the text I reached at the very end of the game (“some things never change”) made me think that perhaps the despair was intentional and that the purpose of this wall-o-links was not to be a puzzle, but precisely to convince me that all possible avenues of action would be ineffective. In retrospect, now that I know what’s there, it does kind of make sense which words lead to (slightly) better outcomes. But I didn’t get it, and via not getting it missed part of the point of the story.
Perhaps this was my own fault: perhaps I should have recognized, “oh, yes, this is that thing where there are links on every word, and most of them go to the same place, which means it feels like the situation is hopeless, but it’s actually not exactly hopeless if only you find the right words to click, which you do by thinking about this particular situation you’re in and which words stand out.” And I should also have known I could hit the back button to revisit the link-wall, and that I didn’t have to replay the whole thing over and over in order to explore it, but I only worked that out a little later in the competition, on a different Twine game. To some extent this is a risk you take as the reader of interactive anything, that you can’t be guaranteed to have seen some essential piece that makes the whole thing make more sense.
It’s easy for people like me, who have been playing Z-machine and TADS games for decades, to forget how much literacy is involved in being able to play parser IF and even to navigate the specific interfaces associated with those formats — and therefore to forgive obscure aspects of such games, while not recognizing that other game systems also have their own conventions that are no more bizarre but perhaps just unfamiliar. For instance, I had a ranty bit in the draft of my review of Dream Pieces until I realized that what I thought was a guess-the-verb situation was in fact totally obvious if I had just remembered that Quest lets you click on nouns to see the relevant verbs. And a number of reviewers have expressed some confusion as they’ve come to grips with the conventions of StoryNexus in order to play Final Girl, if they haven’t ever seen a StoryNexus game before.
Twine literacy is an awfully new thing, though, because the idioms of Twine are so rapidly evolving. (This is part of what makes the scene so fascinating to me.) howling dogs is clearly a major source of conceptual inspiration, and I’ve written already about how a couple of other Twine pieces this year either build on or invent afresh ways of conveying meaning within the scope of Twine functionality. So this particular Twine convention is one that may need some framing to help players understand what it is, especially if those players aren’t Twine adepts already.
Returning, then, to the content of the game now that I have a better grasp of what the game content even is: this is still rather a downer piece, and intentionally so. Though the second option gives you a little more agency, neither option is great. Either you can sit down in silence, or you can get angry and rant, impressing some people but severely alienating others, laying yourself open to attacks on tone, and possibly not convincing very many people who weren’t at least partly on your side already. And either way you get the “nothing changes” remarks at the end.
So this piece falls into a weird space for me. Is a call to action? If so, I really hope that “be silent” and “shout uselessly” are not the only two possible outcomes — and I think they genuinely are not. Admittedly, not everyone is in the position in the first place to organize conferences or mentor and encourage younger women or speak in the GDC advocacy track or add to the critical diversity of your industry. (Okay, I’m being game-centric here, but that’s because that’s the tech-focused industry I know best.) But I do keep hoping for more ways to improve this situation that are more effective and less rage-y, because astonishingly stupid, infuriating shit has happened sometime, in some form or other, to almost everyone I’ve ever talked to who works in a tech or gaming field but is not a straight white cis man.
(Originally I had a multi-paragraph section here about specific stuff that’s happened to me and people I know. I cut it because, since my experiences are less severe than the one in the game, and since I don’t have to deal with the intersectional issues of being not just female but a woman of color, I decided that that was more talking over than listening to. But suffice it to say that I do have some experience-based empathy for what the author is talking about, even if I’ve been fortunate enough never to have had something that appalling happen to me.)
However. Perhaps a call to action is not the point of the piece; maybe instead it’s about the experience, maybe it’s about creating empathy for a situation where it feels like there are no other options. If that’s the case, then this choice of options (“bad” and “possibly less bad, with a slight possibility of making some minor difference, except it gets you a heck of a backlash”) makes more sense.
But if so, then the scene doesn’t have quite the emotional impact, at least for me, that I think it might have been aiming for. There are a couple of ways it could have gone to produce this: an even more intense and visceral presentation; more particular, individual characterization, so that I was really invested in this specific woman; or more grounding-in-fact, e.g. with links to actual events and incidents and statistics. By whatever means, I think I was looking for the surprising truth in this story — the point at which it dug past what I know from experience or from anecdotes I’ve already heard about such situations, to something deeper, more personal, or less documented. Then again, possibly I’m not the target audience; maybe the situation it describes is too familiar to me.
I do want to reiterate that I thought this a very solidly and confidently-made thing.